Muna Bhandari is 24, married, and worries about whether her Caterpillar is leaking engine oil. We in the Valley may be used to female Safa tempo drivers, but news of a woman driving one of these enormous excavators is nothing short of ground-breaking.
Bhandari, the first female earthmoving operator in Nepal, took to this rather unusual occupation at the tender age of 18. She only has a school-leaving certificate, but when at 17 she fell in love with and married Ram Hari Bhandari, nine years her senior, Muna didn't want to just sit around at home. So, she asked her excavator husband to teach her to drive a Caterpillar so she, too, could perform this essential part of any large-scale construction undertaking. He took her on as an assistant and Muna made her first professional journey from her hometown of Abu Khaireni in Gorkha to a project out west.
Muna not only learnt how to do the job, she grew to love it. "Since then," she says smiling, "I have worked on many projects-from Mahendranagar in the west to Taplejung in the east."
It was not a smooth ride all the way. Muna had to face many challenges before she could take up the trade. "Nepali society is so conservative. Instead of encouraging women, they scorn us. But to me it doesn't matter what they say. In fact, I feel proud that I am capable of doing what I do," says this pioneer.
The snide comments are not the only professional hazard either, sometimes Muna and Ram Hari cannot meet for months. Their special skills mean they are in demand all over the country. The separation is hard. "I miss not having a family-children and a small house, that's all I want. I don't really dream much," says Muna, who is currently working on a resort project in Nagarkot.
She's patient, though, and says she is working towards that goal. Every project Muna works on brings her a considerable pay packet. "I prefer to live off my own sweat. I never check my husband's wallet to see how much money he has," laughs the charismatic excavator.
In her free time, Muna sings, and writes in her daily journal, which she hopes someday to publish. All the best Muna, and keep moving our earth!